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Are You Lonesome Tonight?

Exquisite Chinese tale of desperation starts off as an impossible urban romance before morphing into a thriller - Shipei Wen's debut premieres at Cannes

Flowing in and out of memories, dreams, and fantasies, Shipei Wen’s debut feature follows a repairman, Xue Ming (Eddie Peng), through the events leading up to his incarceration for murder. Lonesome from the start, we are Ming’s sole companions as he revisits one fateful night when, by chance, he hits and seemingly kills a man. Despite his unclear culpability in the matter, Ming struggles under the burden of what he’s done, and so, when later noticing a “missing” sign showing the face of his victim, he uses the opportunity to ingratiate himself to the man’s widow, Liang Ma (Sylvia Cheng) with plans to confess to her and then turn himself into the police.

But Ming can’t bring himself to do as he intends. Instead, he and Ma strike up a supportive friendship of sorts, perhaps with the hopes of curing that particular urban lonesomeness one feels when surrounded by millions of strangers. Ming and Ma are strangers too, brought together by his one-sided knowledge of what has happened to her husband, knowledge that brings Ma into relief for Ming – he can see her as a person rather than just another face in the crowd – but also encompasses the film’s central tension: a genuine friendship cannot be based on dishonesty, and yet for Ming to reveal the reason for their initial connection would jeopardize any possible relationship between them.

It’s a classic scenario familiar from countless romantic comedies, transferred here to a tale of desperation: widowed housewife, plagued by her husband’s criminal entanglements, meets guilt-ridden lonely soul in search of meaningful human connection. And romance, in some form or other, is clearly on Wen’s mind, as evidenced by the repetition throughout of the movie’s title song, Are You Lonesome Tonight? (originally by Elvis Presley). The lyrics, about a relationship falling apart, are here reinterpreted to be about a burgeoning relationship founded on deception: “Honey, you lied when you said you loved me. And I had no cause to doubt you. But I’d rather go on hearing your lies. Than go on living without you”.

It’s too bad, then, that the movie seems to lose interest in Ming and Ma’s relationship in the final act, veering sharply into thriller/noir territory and sidelining Ma in favour of a satchel of cash. To this viewer at least, the promise of material recompense got through violence is far less interesting than a confrontation over an impossible relationship. But perhaps the movie agrees that good deeds may not suffice for amnesty, since we end where we begin – in prison, alone, lonesome, left to reflect upon our lives…

Are You Lonesome Tonight just premiered in Cannes, as a Special Screening.

By Justin Khoo - 12-07-2021

Justin is an associate professor of philosophy at MIT. Before coming to MIT, he did his graduate work in philosophy at Yale, and was an undergraduate at UC-Davis. He works in philosophy of language an...

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